Jonah Gershon ’24 competes on the Food Network’s 2022 Christmas Cookie Challenge.

From Food Network to his kitchen, student crafts better butter

Home cooks hoping to perfect a unique chocolate chip cookie recipe could soon be thanking Jonah Gershon ’24, who’s creating a key ingredient.

Gershon, a winner of $20,000 in the inaugural Northeastern Dairy Product Innovation Competition, an initiative launched by Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) in partnership with the Northeast Dairy Foods Research Center, and a past contestant on the Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge, is spending the summer working on his idea for Spekld, a form of brown butter that could be purchased in a stick, similar to traditional butter.

Hosts Eddie Jackson and Ree Drummond with Christmas Cookie Challenge competitors.

Chefs create brown butter by melting butter in a pan and slowly cooking it until the milk solids caramelize, turning the butter a darker color and imparting a nutty flavor. It’s used in baked goods and frostings, and also in savory dishes with vegetables, pasta, eggs and various meats and fish.

“I started thinking about this last summer when I was making my chocolate chip cookies,” said Gershon, a hotel administration major in the Nolan School of Hotel Administration at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. “I always use brown butter, but it’s an extra step that takes 20 or 25 minutes, and I was wondering why there wasn’t a brown butter I could just take out of the fridge and use.”

Gershon refined his idea for Spekld during a entrepreneurship communications class he took last fall in the Nolan School. From there, he entered it into the school’s hospitality pitch deck competition, as well as other competitions.

“Since I was young, I’ve always liked experimenting in the kitchen,” Gershon said. “And I’ve always been a creative and artistic person, so cooking combined my interests in food and art. There’s a lot of artistic expression through food.”

His stint on the Food Network’s 2022 Christmas Cookie Challenge was a bit of a fluke, he said. He has an Instagram account (@jonahgershon) where he shows off his cookie baking prowess, “but I’m Jewish,” he said with a laugh, “so I make a lot of cookies, but they’re not usually the traditional iced sugar cookies.”

Food Network recruiters reached out to him, asking him to apply, so he worked furiously for seven days, creating new cookies and taking photos to send to them to see if he would qualify.

As the youngest person on the show, he spent three days in Knoxville, Tennessee, competing against other professional cookie bakers, creating snow globe cookies and having fun in the kitchen.

“It was a cool experience and I’m still on a group chat with the other bakers,” he said.

Now that he’s focused on Spekld, Gershon plans to start refining the product in his home kitchen this summer and will visit Cornell’s food processing facilities while working with CREA’s Entrepreneurs in Residence and industry mentors. Those mentors are recruited from dairy organizations and companies such as Dairy Management Inc., Rich Products Corporation and Hood and will help Gershon to create prototypes and think through how to market and scale his product.

A prototype of Gershon's brown butter.

The 10 finalists in the dairy competition will present their products to a committee of judges during an end-of-summer pitch Aug. 8 at Cornell, with the chance to win another $55,000 to further their business.

As he’s developed Spekld, Gershon has taken advantage of numerous Cornell resources for entrepreneurs, including Blackstone Launchpad, whose directors Nancy Almann ’83 and Felix Litvinsky connected him to people in the industry, encouraged him to enter various competitions and watched his pitch practices.

Based on his progress this summer, Gershon said he’d like to apply to eLab, a student business accelerator, in the fall, and continue to work on Spekld next year.

He thinks there’s a growing market of home cooks wanting to try new food products.

“The pandemic caused a big boom in home cooking,” he said. “And the presence of TikTok and other social media helps people learn more about cooking at home. One of the biggest challenges I have is educating people about brown butter, but there are lots of people who know about it and love the flavor.”

And his home cooking experiments are going well. A new banana bread recipe, for example, won rave reviews. Maybe a cookbook could be next?

“I never would have thought of putting myself out there without the support I’ve gotten from Cornell,” he said. “There are so many resources I haven’t even realized. I am trying to make the most of everything I have.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for Entrepreneurship at Cornell.

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Abby Kozlowski